In the closing arguments of a sexual assault trial against the former fire chief of Fort St. James, B.C., the defence lawyer argued the testimony of the three female complainants, plus the testimony of two male witnesses, was made up as part of one woman's "mission to ruin" her then-boss, a theory questioned by the Crown lawyer.
Robert Harold Bennett is charged with three counts of sexual assault stemming from a period of time in which he served as fire chief of Fort St. James, B.C., and, by his own admission, was drinking regularly to the point that his speech and behaviour were affected, even while at the fire hall.
According to the complainants, who all served as volunteer firefighters, Bennett had initially been respectful, but as his drinking worsened, so did his behaviour.
Kirsten Rudolph and Lisa Button alleged Bennett would make sexually charged remarks, and on several occasions grabbed their breasts, buttocks and crotches, ground his pelvis against them, commented on their appearance and told the women they liked his behaviour.
While Bennett admitted to being a "pest" toward the women — poking them or playing with Rudolph's hair — he denied any instances of sexual touching or assault.
Firefighter says she was pinned
The third complainant, Joy Reierson, contended that in April 2013 Bennett invited her into a room for a meeting and began touching her. When she tried to leave, she alleged, he kissed her, pinned her against the door, told her "you want it" and held her by her wrists on the floor with his penis out.
Only when two other firefighters knocked on the door was she able to leave, Reierson said.
Bennett's lawyer, Jason Tarnow, questioned why Reierson would not have yelled for help. He also questioned why she didn't go to the RCMP if she had "nearly been raped."
Reierson testified Bennett was well respected and she feared she would lose her position at the fire hall, something Tarnow called "preposterous."
Complainant described as 'bully'
In his closing arguments, Tarnow directed focus to the credibility of the complainants, particularly Rudolph, who he described as "combative" and "condescending" — a "bully" who "does what she wants to who she wants."
Tarnow contended Rudolph went "looking for a dancing partner" in her "mission to ruin Bennett," convincing Button and Reierson to join her in fabricating allegations in order to get the District of Fort St. James to address Bennett's drinking.
Tarnow directed jurors to remember several witnesses who testified they'd never seen Bennett act sexually toward female firefighters.
One woman, the community's former postmaster and another volunteer firefighter, had "laughed" when Rudolph asked if she had any allegations against Bennett, saying Bennett was the "last person" who would do anything of that nature.
As for two male firefighters who testified they had seen Bennett grope female volunteers, Tarnow asked why they didn't say anything at the time.
"Is he trying to save face?" he asked of one, now chief paramedic of Fort St. James.
'Who was going to believe her?'
In her closing remarks, Crown prosecutor Cheryl Tobias said the jury did not have to believe every instance of alleged sexual assault occurred, only that "one or more" did. She noted the defence was relying on the idea that three complainants and two Crown witnesses "completely concocted their evidence" — something she said there was no evidence of.
Tobias questioned Bennett's claim that his memory was not affected by his drinking.
Tobias said by bringing out witnesses who testified to Bennett's character, the defence had helped illustrate why Reierson didn't come forward earlier.
"He was the respected fire chief in a very small community," Tobias said. "Who was going to believe her?"
Before sending them into deliberations, Madame Justice H. Holmes instructed jurors to ignore opinions they had or may have heard or read about how the criminal justice system generally deals with sexual assault and warned them against forming judgment about testimony based on how witnesses behaved.
With files from Audrey McKinnon